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Studying Across the Divide

Posted on: February 10, 2023

We often hear people talk about studying the Arts and Maths or Science as being parallel paths. Maths students often state they have little interest in the Arts and Arts students often seem to have little interest Maths. Once these narrow and reductive positions have become entrenched students can end up dismissing a huge amount of research, writing and insight from the opposing side. In this blog we’ll talk about why students feel that way. But we’ll also talk about why students of the Arts and Maths who study across the boundary will find that their understanding will broaden, grow deeper, and enhance their ability to study more generally. Finally, we’ll talk about the historical prevalence of Mathematicians in the Arts and Artists in Maths. Looking at how ideas from both areas of study have helped enhance their work.

There can be a variety of reasons why Art students struggle or perceive themselves to struggle with Maths at school, but what is clear is that for most people it is at this moment when the problems begin. If you move away from Maths as a teenager, then as you enter higher education this feeling will only be exacerbated. One of the problems is there can often be a lack of engagement with how Maths is taught in schools. To the creative student it can often feel boring and inflexible. The teacher will describe a rule and the students will then apply this rule to examples, giving a mechanical understanding of how to apply the rule. This style of teaching avoids a discussion about why the rule exists. For the purposes of this blog, we won’t discuss Maths teaching in detail. It will be enough to say that the teaching of Maths can undermine confidence and alienate those students who don’t immediately engage with the rules being introduced. The reverse is also true. As the seemingly vague, changeable, and intangible answers that appear in Arts discussions can be difficult to engage with for students who prefer more certainty in their study.

But of course, even if as a student you are blessed with the most engaging Maths teacher available you might still feel that Maths is not for you. How does algebra, trigonometry and statistics apply to your life? If your path lies in literature, art, or history for example, why does balancing an equation help you get to where you want to be? And likewise, if your career is clearly going to lie in a laboratory, why does the fate of Hamlet have any relevance to you? As we have stated we often think about these disciplines as opposing poles and once we have decided on which side of the line we wish to study, it is easy to dismiss anything that occurs on the other side. This results in students of both codes who believe themselves to have developed no interest in the opposing subject. We can argue that as a student a change of attitude is required. Because the true value of Maths is in the skills it teaches in the areas of problem solving, critical thinking and analysis. So, the ability to calculate the area of a complex shape is not necessarily the applicable takeaway. The ability to analyse a situation, consider the options, and decide on the best solution is hugely relevant to students of all subjects. Alongside that the value of studying the arts is collaboration, communication, and developing a tolerance for ambiguity. Again, the ability to analyse the language used in Hamlet’s soliloquys is not the critical skill you will learn. We can already see how studying across the divide is complimentary and broadening.

The ability to critically analyse a problem and find solutions is why Maths is an essential subject. As Arts students our attitude change is simply to approach these lessons in a slightly different way. You might find it more helpful to attempt to resolve the problem using your existing knowledge and skills. Perhaps you will be able collaborate with fellow students in attempting to solve the puzzle. Ultimately you are going to discover that the rule presented to you must be true. However, it is the path to this knowledge that is the critical point being made. The act of investigation is the most important element that will improve our problem-solving faculties. As Arts students your instinct will be to break the rules presented to you, and by approaching the work in this way you will ensure that you end up with the same understanding. But hopefully you will feel engaged with the process rather than kept at arm’s length by it. Our attitude change as STEM students is to engage with our fellow students and embrace the uncertainty of there being no firm and resolvable answer to the problems presented. To recognise that the discussion, exchange of ideas and working out what you believe to be true is of greater importance than being right. How you express yourself is the key not necessarily what you express.

So, you engage with Maths, and it helps you develop problem-solving skills. Or you engage with Art, and it helps your communication skills. Then what? As with all methods of study that is simply the beginning. Once you discover the joy of studying across the divide you will quickly move towards engaging with the subjects more difficult concepts and you will quickly realise that there has always been a strong link between the Arts and Maths. Which brings us to the Golden Ratio. The Golden Ratio is a mathematical principle that expresses the ratio of two sums whereby their ratio is equal to the larger of the two quantities. It was first studied in Ancient Greece as it was observed appearing repeatedly in Geometry. Euclid wrote about it in his foundational textbook Elements in around 300 BC. The ratio can be expressed in decimal as 1.618 and describes the relationship between the relative size of adjacent objects. It has been observed in nature and used extensively in art and design over the centuries. Its ubiquity is associated with the idea that the ratio in some way is inherent in our perception of beauty, aesthetics, and visual symmetry. You have probably heard it talked about in a variety of places. It is only one example of the cross pollination that happens between the Arts and Maths subjects when they are studied together.

Artists over the years have applied this idea to their work. Perhaps most notably Salvador Dali in his work The Sacrament of the Last Supper explicitly used the ratio when designing the size and shape of the canvas, there are also shapes within the work itself that conform to the ratio. In the early days of publishing the shape and proportions of the pages in books were defined by the ratio as were some of the musical works by composers Bartok and Satie. The Heavy Metal band Tool have used the relationship between the Golden Ratio and the Fibonacci sequence in their work, particularly the song Lateralus.

The writers David Foster Wallace, Lewis Carroll and Thomas Pynchon all studied Maths to a very high level. They all have a very peculiar and idiosyncratic approach to their fiction. Leonardo Da Vinci’s interest in anatomy resulted in some of the most detailed drawings yet done of the human body, his disparate scientific studies informed his art as he sought to better understand the world around him. Samuel Morse began life as a philosophy student at Yale before studying fine art at the Royal Academy. However, he retained an interest in science and his experiments with electromagnets resulted in the telegraph and Morse Code, which transformed the way we were able to communicate over long distances. If creativity can be defined as “the ability to join two ideas that apparently have no connection to illuminate a new understanding” the link between Maths and the Arts becomes explicit.

We have looked at possible explanations for Art students being turned off Maths and vice versa, we’ve also discussed why this might be short sighted. Not only that but why the study of Maths could improve and deepen your study of Art and your education more generally. The pursuit of Science and Maths will help alter your perspective on the world and therefore your work. It should also teach you that success comes by approaching any subject in an eager and open-minded way. By creatively and actively engaging with the subject and then applying the lessons learned to your study, you will undoubtedly be sure to produce your best work and perhaps most importantly work that you wouldn’t have been capable of without your study across disciplines.